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Paul Newman's Luck

He says he owes his good fortune to great genes, but Paul Newman has overcome a distant dad, too much booze, and the death of his son to remain a superstar at, yes, 80

"He's a great-looking man, but he's always been utterly unpretentious and sane," says his friend Warren Beatty. "It's hard to think of a bad word to say about him…. It's interesting. Maybe I don't know him well enough." He's kidding, of course. Beatty was only 23 and a newcomer in Hollywood when he attended Newman's 35th birthday party in the penthouse of the Chateau Marmont. "It was when Paul and Joanne were an item, before they were married," he recalls. "They were just sensible, intelligent, nice people. I'm making them sound boring, but they weren't."

With their careers taking off, the couple made an effort to stay grounded, settling away from Hollywood in a 1760 stone colonial with a barn converted into a guesthouse in the bucolic environs of Westport, Connecticut. It was there they raised their three daughters, Nell, Melissa, and Clea.

But Newman's life has not been the fairy tale some people imagine. He admits that in his younger years he indulged in enough scotch and cigarettes to nearly kill him. (Today he drinks only Budweiser.) Then, in 1978, he lost his son, Scott, to an overdose of drugs and alcohol at a time when father and son were estranged. "In the early part of my parenthood, I didn't pay the proper kind of attention," he says. "There were terrible, terrible misjudgments."

His own father was strict and emotionally distant. Arthur Newman owned a prosperous sporting-goods store in Cleveland and raised his family in affluent Shaker Heights. Second son Paul was smaller, less athletic, and less studious than his older brother, Art Jr. At Kenyon College, he immersed himself in acting after being thrown off the football team for drunken brawling, and he likes to say he graduated "magna cum lager" with a degree in speech. One gets the feeling that Newman has been trying ever since to compensate for his misspent youth, when "I couldn't find a reason to respect myself." The remorse he feels about his relationship with his dad helps explain why he has repeatedly been drawn to father-son relationships in his work. "One of my great regrets in life is that my father never had a chance to see me be successful," Newman says. "He died when he was 57 years old, and he saw me as a ne'er-do-well."

As the years have passed, Newman's great gift to his audience has been to share unflinchingly the sorrows and frayed edges of his twilight years. He could easily have coasted into old age as a leading man emeritus. Instead, he has deepened his craft with vivid performances that keep getting him Oscar nominations (for The Verdict, Nobody's Fool, Road to Perdition) and his only best-actor Oscar, for reprising his role as The Hustler's Eddie Felson in 1986 for Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money. In the summer of 2003, Newman returned to Broadway after a 38-year hiatus and earned a Tony nomination for his role as the stage manager in a hit revival of Our Town.

Acting does not define his life, however. Indeed, the older he gets, themore multifaceted his life seems to become as he divides himself among hisroles as husband and father, activist, racecar driver, and entrepreneur."I keep trying to retire from everything, and I discover I've retiredfrom absolutely nothing," he says.

"Paul is an absolutely vital human being who spends his life pushing the envelope," says Robert Benton, who directed him in Nobody's Fool. "Fortunately, that comes with discipline and responsibility and conscience. He lives boldly."

Too boldly, at times, for his wife. Newman has redirected some of his passion into a second career as an amateur racecar driver and the owner of Newman/Haas Racing, a team on the Champ car circuit (a type of Formula 1 racing). Woodward, who has appeared opposite her husband in 11 films and been directed by him in five, including Rachel, Rachel, for which she received an Oscar nomination, rues the day she costarred with him in the Indy-500 flick Winning (1969) and watched him fall in love with the roar of a V-8 engine and the stink of exhaust in the pits. "I was never good at sports," he says, "and I dance like an elephant. Racing was the first time I found grace." He holds a place in the Guinness World Records as the oldest driver to win a professionally sanctioned race.

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